Cowboys 28 Knights 2
Matthew Wright celebrates his try with Brent Tate in North Queensland's thumping win over Newcastle in Townsville on Monday night. Photo: Getty Images
Captain Kurt Gidley could not explain why the Knights were so flat and fumble-fingered in their 28-2 loss to North Queensland at Townsville Stadium last night.
Offering no excuses, Gidley and coach Wayne Bennett said the Knights should not have suffered any letdown after the emotional high of their 30-0 victory against Cronulla eight days earlier, which was inspired by injured team-mate Alex McKinnon.
After an encouraging start, the Knights conceded three tries in eight minutes to trail 16-2 at half-time and coughed up too much possession to even entertain the idea of mounting a second-half comeback.
Having dedicated their season to McKinnon, dealing with the psychological impact of his career-ending spinal injury will be something the Knights must deal with every week but Gidley believed they have already cleared their highest hurdle.
"I felt it was harder last week to get up for the game," Gidley said.
"This week it just felt like back to footy, obviously still having Alex in our minds, but I felt a lot better going into the game this week than last week, so it's not an excuse."
Bennett agreed, saying: "We've got a job to do. Last weekend I would have thought would have been harder than playing this week."
Newcastle players were in good spirits after being told earlier in the day that McKinnon, recovering from spinal surgery, had been transferred by air ambulance from The Alfred Hospital in Melbourne to Sydney's Royal North Shore Hospital.
Described by Bennett as "great news", the Knights made that public with a late-afternoon statement on their website and to media outlets.
"Alex McKinnon has been transferred from Melbourne to a Sydney hospital today. Alex is in a stable condition," the Knights statement said.
The Knights took that positive energy into the game, hitting the ball up with determination and desire to establish early field position and a 2-0 lead from a Tyrone Roberts penalty goal in the seventh minute, but they were the only points they posted all night.
Led by playmakers Johnathan Thurston and Michael Morgan, the Cowboys ran in five tries and kept their line intact to end a three-game losing streak and leave the Knights and Sharks at the bottom of the ladder with just one win each. Newcastle's for and against difference of minus 32 is marginally better than Cronulla (minus 45).
"I'd love to be able to tell you why, but I can't - handling error, penalty, try," Bennett said of Newcastle's poor handling.
"Double penalties, try after the handling error, it just kills you. It was a bit like we played in Melbourne actually."
There will be no let-up for the Knights as they hit the road again to play the Raiders in Canberra on Saturday, though five-eighth Jarrod Mullen is rated a good chance of returning from a pre-season hamstring injury and making his first appearance for the year.
The Knights completed just 23 of 36 sets (64%) last night, according to NRL Stats, compared to North Queensland's 32 of 41 (78%).
"At the moment we're in our fifth game and we're probably playing at about 50 or 60 per cent of our ability, to be honest with you. We just haven't been able to nail it consistently," Bennett said.
"Cronulla last week, the first half was good and the second half we stayed in defence but didn't finish that well, so I'm just not sure when it's going to come for us.
"We're just struggling to get it.
"... Teams seem to have to get desperate to play well, and we're probably in that category. We had a pretty fair performance last week and were desperate and we've come here with a win behind us, and the Cowboys had lost two or three in a row and they played with a bit of desperation here tonight.
"As Kurt said, our first 13 minutes were perfect. I couldn't have asked for more, but it just got worse as the night went on."
Gidley lamented his team's poor concentration and lack of defensive commitment.
"I thought we started really well, with our attitude and the way we carried the ball, but just the possession in the first half, probably after 10 minutes, we didn't see a lot of ball after that probably for the rest of the game," Gidley said.
"Whether it was concentration or whatever it might be, you've got to have a decent amount of possession and we didn't do that, and we've got to have a look at our defence ... just defensively, I'm pretty disappointed with it."
Newcastle committed a series of errors midway through the first half and Thurston made them pay, engineering tries for Matthew Wright, Brent Tate and Michael Morgan in an eight-minute blitz to give the Cowboys a 16-2 lead at the break.
The Knights threatened to score on the stroke of half-time but fullback Darius Boyd spilled a pass close to North Queensland's line.
Cowboys second-rower Jason Taumalolo went within centimetres of scoring a spectacular try in the 46th minute when he almost reeled in Lui's grubber but he lost control as he tried to reach back and ground it inside the dead-ball line, and suffered a shoulder injury in the process.
From the goal-line drop-kick restart, the Cowboys continued to mount pressure.
Boyd saved a try by tacking Ray Thompson and holding him up over the line in the 48th minute but it only delayed the inevitable as Morgan crawled over the line to recover his own grubber and score at the end of the set. Thurston stretched the lead to 22-2 when his conversion attempt went in off the left-hand upright.
The Knights conceded four straight penalties as they tried desperately to stay in the game, earning a brief reprieve when the Cowboys lost the ball in the shadows of Newcastle's posts.
Though he was denied earlier, there was no stopping Thompson in the 62nd minute when he darted out of dummy-half and away from some tired defenders to score North Queensland's fifth try.
Cowboys back-rower Tariq Sims was reported for a late tackle on Roberts in the 79th minute.
* Newcastle's NYC (under-20s) team withstood a second-half rally from the Cowboys to win 32-16 and remain unbeaten. The Cowboys rallied from a 22-0 half-time deficit to pull within 22-16 in the final 10 minutes but the Knights sealed the deal with two late tries.